Pete and Dissent

71nBWdDgN0L._SY470_To be honest, I came to appreciate Pete Seeger only indirectly and later in life. After all I was not yet born when the Weavers hit #1 with “Goodnight Irene”, and I was just a toddler when Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

I did enjoy his music, albeit unknowingly at first. Through Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio and others I heard Seeger songs but in other voices. In high school during the early 1970’s each morning we would listen to announcements over the school’s public address system. These were invariably introduced with the Byrds’ rendition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” Seeger’s activist take on Ecclesiastes 3.

Only as an adult did I begin to understand the texture of his remarkable life. I came to know more of his musical legacy when he appeared so consistently in tributes from other artists and documentaries on the development of American popular music (recently in Laura Archibald’s fascinating film, “Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation”).

Seeger’s personal history was defined by an uncompromising consistency of character. The musical path from “Talking Union” in 1941 to “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in 1967 reflects a philosophical purity hard to imagine in many of today’s artists and antiheros. He dissented around war, labor, race, pollution, big-ness and civic alienation. He was a Party-affiliated Communist early on and though forsaking the party membership remained an egalitarian communist his whole life. He valued participation, political and otherwise, and never performed a concert without modeling it in invitations for the audience to join him in song.

Still I cannot help wondering, would a whole nation full of Pete Seegers be contentedly utopian, or simply insufferable? It may be impolite to say so this week, but I think insufferable. Progressivism seems to work best as a compass or governor on market forces, rather than as a replacement of them. It was in that sense that Seeger helped hurry change. And I do not believe it diminishes Seeger’s political legacy to suggest that his music’s resonance comes largely from its historical context as artistic dissent.

It is precisely this point that Pete Seeger’s death causes me to reflect upon in my own business and social life. How do I as a leader value and maintain the contributions of an individual whose point of view, if ever dominant, would be ruinous to the group?  Surely Pete Seeger’s life suggests that healthy dissent can not only be tolerated but revered. The notion of a gadfly has been part of Western thinking since Socrates. However, most of us find that the dissenters and challengers in our organizations are not the congenial Seeger but the irascible Socrates and, I admit, it is often hard for me not to prescribe hemlock.

For a healthy nation dissent is worth the effort, and that is why even many arch-conservatives permit a certain admiration if not to Seeger himself then at least to the country that eventually allowed him to exist and thrive as an artist. Mature businesses and social organizations have a similar need and the aged folk singer’s death reminds us of that. Many groups have within them that person whose perspective is so strikingly different and difficult that the leader must often exercise his own personal capital to protect and defend the nonconformist. Here’s hoping we do so.

I might hate to live in a world with only Pete Seegers, but I would equally hate a world with no Pete Seegers.

Application:

Think about your business or social organization. Is there a “Pete Seeger” bringing a different voice? If not, should there be? And if so, is that voice cherished or merely tolerated. The answers to those questions may well be a good thermometer to the maturity of your group.

Advertisements

“Famine”

famineRowan_Gillespie_famine1

I saw them from the window as the car from the airport turned onto the Custom House Quay on the way to St. Stephen’s Green. There on the sidewalk along the River Liffey were six gaunt, bronze figures, starving ghosts trudging a despairing path toward the Dublin dockside to board centuries-gone emigration boats to North America.

It was Rowan Gillespie’s sculpted monument to the Great Famine of the late 1840’s in Ireland, where over a million people died and another million had to emigrate. I knew the piece was in Dublin but had never seen it in person. Tired from the long flight, I almost missed the figures, small and incongruent among the commercial buildings of modern Ireland. But when I did recognize them the effect was jarring.

I tried to think of a similar public monument to the underclass, to poverty that existed in my own country but could not. In one way that is understandable. The Great Famine in Ireland, triggered by potato blight, starved the country even while the Irish agricultural engine was still exporting food to England on behalf of absentee English and Anglo-Irish landlords. That brutality produced a direct link from the Great Hunger to Irish Republicanism so the starvation monuments are in that sense nationalistic rather than purely empathetic.

But to an American visitor, groggy from a day of transatlantic travel, the rough bronze figures set among the modern cars, buses and office buildings appeared like shards of useless metal on some great manufacturing room floor, the unimportant shavings left when the economic milling machine had smoothed away the rough edges of national commercial efficiency.

Would we profit from a similar public reminder? I think so. The current American political debate is often dogmatic and extreme, socialism versus market economy. The national reality is actually a precarious balance, one that presupposes constant healthy argument on the appropriate role of government, its institutional competency to perform its role, and the impact of government on essential market forces.

Not every government intervention is socialism; not every underclass is a “moocher”; not all income inequality is bad, nor is self-interest inevitably oppressive. Balance is difficult and when corporate scale and income concentration become too great (as during the Gilded Age) a self-aware society responds if for no other reason than its own interest. As American economic growth is concentrated on a smaller and smaller set of citizens, we may now be at that point again but our ability to respond by consensus is dulled by dogma, platitude and a commitment to philosophical purity.

So perhaps among the American private monuments to the marketplace, the corporate campuses, bank skyscrapers, and malls, we need some sort of public monument to the poor. It might remind us that a market based national economic engine will inexorably purge itself of unproductive materials and grind ferociously away the rough edges of inefficiency. But the discarded human chips and pieces of unproductivity have faces and families and, if unattended, can fuel revolutions. And in that important sense our monument to poverty might appeal to the empathetic and the self-interested alike.

Application: Here are two brief passages you may want to memorize or make note of.

Continuing in the Irish theme, William Butler Yeats, describes “The Countess Cathleen”:

“Sorrows that she’s but read of in a book, Weigh on her mind as if they had been her own.”

The Biblical prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 22:16) remembers the King Josiah:

“He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.

The Stubborn Glebe’s New Year

Picture1 Picture2

It has been common practice since the early 18th century for British poets laureate to recognize each new year with an original poem. Not all are especially memorable but the practice of reflection and thoughtful commemoration by poets (laureate or otherwise) and fellow artists reminds us of our own obligation to consider the transition of these life chapters. As with individuals, the passing of a year is also a moment of significance for almost any self-defined organization and it is a valuable opportunity for its members to contemplate together.

Alas, most businesses commemorate the passing year with an annual report so deliberately dreadful to read that they are remarkable only for obfuscation or deadening self-evidence. My personal favorite is one annual report proclamation that routinely appears: “company’s ability to achieve its projected results is dependent on many factors which are outside management’s control.” I cannot decide whether this is simply a distinctly unnecessary expression, deliberately ironic, or an existential comment so profoundly frightening as to render it almost debilitating. Fortunately I believe it is the first.

Contrast it then, to Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” in which the poet, at the end of December, 1900, describes the departing age as an oppressive haunting gloom (“the Century’s corpse”) broken only by the tiny hopeful song of a thrush:

That I could think there trembled through     

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew     

And I was unaware.

Whatever our poetic competency, however, should not every thoughtful professional reflect during this time? For only in demonstrating that you understand what happened and why, do you win the authority to decide what could happen and how. All too often in my career I have seen failing projects and initiatives simply disappear as if they had never existed, like out of favor Politburo members from old Soviet photographs. What lost opportunities both to learn from mistakes and to model a self-awareness indicative of higher organizational thought.

Once we had a new product of such importance that we met personally with the CEO on a monthly basis to gauge the results. Unfortunately the product’s sales were disappointing and as results continued to lag, the CEO meetings got deferred, then more occasionally canceled and then they simply disappeared off the calendar altogether with no explanation other than the embarrassed silent acknowledgement that, for some reason, this whole effort must have been a colossal mistake.

How much more powerful to have gathered the team together and jointly discussed what happened and why. Were we wrong in our expectations? Did we simply execute poorly? Did the market somehow change without our realizing it? And most importantly, is there any reason to believe that the responsible team has learned from the experience and is less likely to make the same mistake going forward?

Public reflection is frightening but also energizing, whether it be in the context of a company, a community organization, a family, a marriage, or any other organized human endeavor. A leader must sponsor that activity in a way that solicits candor and rewards real insight, even when painful. The turning of the new year is a perfect opportunity to engage in that activity.

The key is open ended, non-threatening questions that solicit rather than inhibit consideration. Let me suggest two simple new year’s questions you may want to pose to your organization. I find it often helpful to give people time to reflect on them before they are discussed together:

1)    What one thing do you wish you could do-over in 2013?

2)    On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being “hopeless” and 10 being “irrationally exuberant” what number would you choose to reflect your own expectations of 2014 compared to 2013? (use the 1-10 scale because I have found that it is extremely difficult for people to assign a number without explaining themselves)

Set aside some time at an upcoming staff or team meeting, family dinner, evening with your spouse, and pose the two New Year’s questions above. Take part when it is your turn (if you are the group’s leader you may want to go last so as not to influence other answers). When it is someone else’s turn, listen for what is said and for how it is communicated. Insofar as anything reflects on you do not be defensive, do not justify or rationalize, do not attempt to fix. Just listen.

Through these exercises we often discover just how life moves on a ragged course at its own pace. In my very early days as a young professional I was the executive assistant to the CEO of a large Fortune 500 company so I often had to meet with the CEO in his office. As I stepped through the doors of the executive suite I always noted the two pieces of art that greeted me. On the left wall of the entry hall was a large abstract expressionist painting with splashes of tumultuous color. Directly across on the right was a placid, quiet Japanese screen of a calm pastoral setting. In my youthful conceit I thought the two incongruent styles silly together. But over the next 35 years in business I would think of them often. I realized only with experience that as I passed between those two artworks I modeled the fine line every executive should walk, between order on one side and chaos on the other, equally appreciative of the contributions of both.

Of course, maybe that is simply just another way of saying “our ability to achieve our projected results is dependent on many factors which are outside management’s control.”

Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe!

Application: Take some time to ask your team, your organization, your family the two new year questions.